Monday, September 30, 2013

India’s Odd Relationship With Swiss Watchmaking


The watchmaking world might well be fixated on China these days, but it’s not the only emerging market with attractive growth prospects. Among the other new industrial giants of the world economy, India has the biggest claim to our interest, not only because her population of more than one billion adds up to a huge potential market, but also because of the peculiar relationship India has maintained with Swiss watchmaking since the late 19th century.

Exports to British colonials
Up to the middle of the 19th century, Europe and the United States were the traditional outlets for Swiss watchmakers, but the second half of the century saw a far-ranging diversification in markets. One of the causes was the appearance of American watch factories, like Waltham Watch and Elgin Watch, which made the United States the world’s most competitive market. Another factor was the technological revolution in communications and transport that multiplied global trading possibilities with the development of telegraph, steamships and railways. The orient could thus become the new outlet for Swiss watchmaking.

India was a new market that first commanded the attention of Swiss watchmakers between 1890 and 1914, thereafter expanding strongly into the 1920s. The value of Swiss horological exports to the Indian subcontinent rose from 658,000 francs in 1885 to 1.7 million in 1900 and reached beyond 21 million francs in 1920. Furthermore, finished watches were overwhelmingly responsible for this growth, representing 97.4% of watchmaking exports between 1885 and 1920. Swiss watchmakers refrained from setting up assembly plants in India as they did in Russia and Japan for example, nor was there a local watchmaking industry on the Indian subcontinent. It remained the exclusive hunting ground for Swiss-watch dealers.

Most of their watches were simple and cheap. Indeed, their average value declined from 22 francs in 1885 to 6.5 francs in 1915, before recovering to 17 francs in 1920. The trade was thus not just about luxury items for the wealthiest classes, but mainly watches for the middle classes that were emerging with the urbanisation and industrial development of India. The British colonial administration was an important consumer of Swiss watches. The railways and armed forces were also major clients, judging from the advertisements of Swiss companies active in India.

By the early 1920s, India had become a crucial market for Swiss watchmakers, taking an increasing share of the global exports of Swiss watches. In 1885 India accounted for only 1% of Swiss watch exports but this grew to 1.8% in 1900 and to 8.8% in the exceptional year of 1920, when the Indian market became nearly as big as the American market.

Watches for the people
Thereafter the export figures reveal a very stable Indian market in the interwar years of 1925 to 1940, when annual exports averaged 4.6 million francs worth of complete watches for the most part (95.4%). The half-a-million watches exported to the subcontinent each year represented more than 3% of total Swiss watch exports.

Nevertheless the structure of the market was transformed during the 1930s. In response to the world economic crisis, Swiss watchmakers brought new kinds of simplified and standardised watches on the market. In 1933 the West End Watch company, one of the biggest Swiss watch concerns in India since the end of the 19th century, launched the Secundus model both as a pocket-watch and as a wristwatch. The following year the company reintroduced its Sowar brand in a new low-cost wristwatch. They were aimed at the working classes and did much to make watches popular among India’s city dwellers.

Relocating to India?
When it became independent in 1947, India also broke away from the economic policies of the colonial era. In the 1950s and 60s, the state became a major player in the country’s industrial development. Import controls, followed by the second five-year plan of 1956-1961 revealed a state policy of promoting national industries while limiting foreign intervention in the domestic economy. For the watch industry, the government imposed quotas on watch imports through a system of licences for companies trading in India. These restrictions, which remained in force until the end of the 1990s, were meant to favour the development of a local watch industry.

The Swiss watchmaking establishment was well aware of the issues at stake but divided on how to respond: should it get involved by locating production in India to retain market share against foreign competitors? Or should it ban the practice in favour of exporting finished products? A Swiss watchmaking delegation was accordingly sent to India in 1958 to look into the possibilities of manufacturing locally. However, for the time being the Statut horloger that governed the Swiss watch cartel (see Watch AroundN°10) did not allow Swiss companies to invest directly abroad. A relaxation of the cartel’s restrictions in 1961 opened the possibility of a partial transfer of production to India. Thus half a dozen Swiss companies, including some that had been long present in the Indian market, hoped to set up local production units. In 1964, Tissot and Omega in the SSIH group, Favre-Leuba, Enicar, Degoumois, Benrus (an American firm with a branch in Switzerland) and Langendorf sent a joint petition to the federal authorities to be allowed to invest directly in India. However neither the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (Fédération Horlogère) nor the Swiss chamber of watchmaking managed to get industry consensus on the issue through ad-hoc committees. Some manufacturers put up stiff opposition to the transfer of production. In fact, until the end of the 1960s, no significant industrial venture involving Swiss watch firms succeeded in getting off the ground.

Abandoned to the competition
Meanwhile, the Swiss watch industry’s main competitors were on the warpath, investing in India and contributing to the birth of watchmaking in that part of the world at the start of the 1960s. Industrialists from the French watchmaking town of Besançon, for example, set up the Indo-French Time Industries company in Bombay with Indian partners, while the German firm, Kasper & Co. of Pforzheim, founded Asika Time Industries at Coonoor with local associates. Both assembled movements imported from France and Germany respectively. However, Japan’s Citizen Watch Co. became the leading player in India by setting up a joint venture in Bangalore with Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT), a state enterprise created in 1953 to make machine tools and precision instruments. The Japanese watch company, which had also been producing machine tools since the mid-1950s, sent some over to equip HMT’s watchmaking workshops. It then went on to supply movement blanks and parts until its Indian partner was ready to manufacture its own movements. The closest cooperation was in the training of technical staff. In 1961 Citizen invited 51 Indian engineers to spend a year studying at their factories. In June the following year a team of Citizen engineers was sent to India to help their returning Indian colleagues set up production. The Indian plant was complete by December 1962. During the 1970s HMT emerged as the leading Indian watch manufacturer. Even though Indian production consisted primarily of assembling parts imported mostly from Japan, it expanded strongly in the 1960s and 70s. From 1965 to 1980, domestic watch production soared from 208,000 units to 4.8 million. From the end of the 1980s, the Titan company joined in as driver of the Indian watch industry with its quartz watches and became HMT’s main challenger. In 1993, India’s output of watches reached nearly 30 million units with HMT claiming 47% of the market and Titan 37%.

The result of this policy was the stagnation of watchmaking exports to India, which did not have the freedom to expand. Exports of finished watches (93.8% of the watch trade with India in 1955) had continued and even increased significantly until 1955. But HMT’s watchmaking debut during the sixties triggered a drop in exports from 918,000 finished watches in 1955 to 30,000 in 1970 and just 12,000 in 1980. While watchmaking exports to India remained high, they consisted mainly of components for Indian companies. The share of complete watches in the horological exports to India likewise slumped from more than 90% in the 1950s to 46% in 1970 and 24% in 1980.

A free market at last
Economic liberalisation policies adopted from the end of the 1990s enabled Swiss watchmakers to return to the Indian market in strength. All import restrictions on Swiss watches were gradually removed, notably the import licences in 1998 as well as the lower price limit for imported watches – 35,000 rupees (about 1,000 US dollars) until 2000, then 4,000 rupees ($120) until 2002 when India lifted all trade restrictions on watches.

With trade liberalisation, exports to the subcontinent rose from 14 million francs in 1990 to 21.9 million in 2000 and to more than 77 million in 2008. Furthermore, the proportion of finished watches in the horological exports leaped from 24.3% in 1980 to 95.9% in 2000, also reflecting the changes that took place in the 1990s.

Despite this strong growth, India ranked only 26th among the Swiss watch industry’s markets in 2009. However it shares with a number of far-east countries the distinction of being among the fastest growing markets. The recent opening of single-brand boutiques in Bangalore and in India’s other urban centres (Omega, a pioneer, had five by 2010) is a sure sign that this market has potential.

More HMT !


Who are HMT?

HMT stands for Hindustan Machine Tools. The company is owned by the Government of India. HMT was entrusted with the vital task of building machine tools for the newly independent India and in 1953 the first machine tool factory was set up at Bangalore.

Then Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru believed that India was capable of manufacturing precision components and he allowed HMT to set up a watch factory at Bangalore in collaboration with M/s Citizen Watch Co., Japan in 1961. In July of 1961, one hundred employees of HMT Watches went to the Citizen factory in Tokyo and learned every aspect of manufacturing watches for one year. Upon their return, employees of Citizen Watch Company spent a year in India assisting with the setup of manufacturing. Production of watches began in 1962, with first batch released by then Prime Minister Nehru.

Then Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru releasing the first batch of hand wound wrist watches.

Headquartered in Bangalore, the 60-year-old HMT — for several decades the celebrated timekeeper of India, and a powerful home-grown manufacturer of capital goods — was severely hit by the new policy and business regime post-1991. In 2000, HMT was broken into five subsidiary companies, HMT Ltd. (which controls the Pinjore tractor plant), HMT Machine Tools, HMT Watches Ltd., HMT Chinar Ltd., HMT Bearings and HMT (International) Ltd. This was primarily done to give autonomy to the subsidiaries and to leverage the company’s experience and skills through product diversification.

Since when are they making Watches?

HMT began manufacturing mechanical movements under license from Citizen. At its peak, HMT manufactured watches in three factories and had a specialized watch case division in Bangalore. HMT has produced over 110 million watches since the 1960s; it expanded its production facilities with two additional factories, one in Tumkur, near Bangalore, and another in Ranibagh in Northern India.

Some of the most popular models like Janata, Sona, and Pilot are powered by hand-wound Caliber HMT 020, now rebranded as HMT 0231. 020 was the older HMT designation for the basic handwind movement when the movement tooling setup at Watch Factory-1 (Bangalore) was being used. Around 1985 the 020 was being manufactured with new tooling at Ranibagh in northern India and the movement was designated 0231. HMT did away with finer cosmetic finishing of the movement components to cut costs.

          The Citizen 0201 movement. Image credit Christoph Lorenz

          The HMT 020 Movement. Image credit Christoph Lorenz

In terms of quality, these HMT movements are pretty well made, and the difference between the Citizen and HMT movements are just a few details, such as lack of decoration or simpler jewel bushes. The HMT 020 is a mens' size handwound movement with 17 jewels and a large Glucydur balance, which is beared in two Citizen Parashock protections. It is constructed in a traditional way with a direct driven center second and a center minute wheel. There are a few variations of this basic movement. The 020/0231 is the basic handwind with centre seconds (HMT Pilot, Janata, Kohinoor etc.), 0232 is another handwind movement but without centre seconds (HMT Ankit), 0233 with offset seconds (HMT Kaushal and the TBC-OC pocket watch), 1809 with centre seconds and non quickset date (HMT Tareeq and Ravi). The 0203 and its variants are still made 100% in house and are the mainstay mechanical movements for HMT. 

That is so cool! Are they still making watches?

As of today HMT is still making their handwind movements completely in house, and watches are still being produced albeit at a much slower rate and most of their models have become difficult to track and connoisseurs try to bag the rare models as they come up for sale.

HMT Automatics basically used the Miyota 6500 movement, until very recently, but the tools which were used to produce these movements got old, instead of investing in new tools HMT decided to import the Miyota 8205 movement and redesign the older watches to fit the 8205 movement. The 8205 movement is not a drop in replacement. The watches with 6500 movements will continue to be sold till stocks last but they are not being produced anymore.

The Kedar on the left uses the Miyota 6500 built completely in house and the Kedar Premium, one of the newer models, uses the imported Miyota 8205.

They have a website, but I found that it is rarely updated. The models on the site differ drastically from the range that is offered.

By the way, did you know they make skeleton watches too ? Here is a snap of their skeleton automatic watch, which you can pick up for Rs 9000/-

CIMG2337 CIMG2348

I bet that’s the cheapest skeleton automatic you can buy brand new in India. And man, it was cool to see the dials behind churning !

And they do make chronograph’s too. Here are the two chronographs I saw on display, which are priced at Rs 6000/-. And yep, all the dials work.


The chronographs and skeletons are not available on the HMT website.


Here are some more shots of the display case and from their latest catalogue:


Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Hunt for the HMT


Lately, I have been  obsessed by automatic watches. Again. I have been fighting this addiction many times over the last decade, but this time I decided to finally get myself an automatic watch.

I decided to ditch the Sonata Quartz watch I have been wearing for the past 12 years and get myself a brand new one for my wedding. I began searching on the internet for the best deals, and I started running into posts and blogs about automatic watches. For the youngsters from the current flashy-colorful-watches generation, these are watches which use a purely mechanical movement converting the wearer’s hand motion to drive the watch, and therefore never requires a battery change. Even now when I try to explain the mechanism of such a watch to a newbie, I am myself still surprised at the micro-mechanical engineering marvel behind such a watch. Even more surprising is the fact that the basic technology is more than 200 years old ! There were no computers or simulators or robots back then, and horologists had to create such watches entirely by hand. The art of making and repairing automatic watches is dying fast, there are not many watch companies who would invest time and money into such machines in India.

The irony of such watches is that automatics are always priced expensive to quartz watches, but they lack the accuracy of quartz movement. You can buy a quartz for a few hundred rupees in India, digital or analog. But to procure a cheap automatic watch, you need at least a few thousand rupees. After visiting numerous showrooms and websites, I concluded that the cheapest branded automatic watches available in Bangalore are from Seiko. The Seiko-5 starts at Rs 6k. Titan’s automatic range starts from Rs 10k. But I was on the hunt for an even cheaper alternative, and my search lead me to HMT, a 60 year old government owned machine tool company.

An HMT commercial from the 90s

HMT’s website mentions some automatic and mechanical movement watches available for online order, and they are priced waaay cheaper than their swiss counterparts. The automatics start at Rs 3000 and you could have a mechanical one for Rs 950 !! But wanted to hold and feel the watches before plunging in. And so I started my hunt to Bangalore’s watch retailers to procure an HMT automatic. It was soon evident that consumers no longer preferred automatics, I could not find even one retailer who had and HMT automatic in stock. Turns out others too have tried and failed; read Sidin Vadukut’s story on hunting an HMT.

I finally decided to go to the source, took down the address of HMT’s Bangalore factory outlet, and got on the bus. The outlet nearest to me was in the Unity building near the corporation offices, you have to get down at the corporation stop, and walk about 1 km to the ancient site. Towards the back of the two storied buildings is the factory showroom, and walking in was like walking into some government office.


The two middle aged men were in deep talk, and did not seem interested in selling anything. When I mentioned I was looking for automatics, they raised eyebrows, and pointed me to the single display case which housed two rows of mechanicals and two of automatics. The cheapest one was priced at Rs 4k. They had a cool skeleton version which was not available on the website, and was priced at Rs 9k.

Right across the factory outlet was another smaller watch shop, and its proprietor, My Sathyanarayana showed me his humble collection of automatics. Sathyanarayana has been running his shop, Sri Lakshmi Times, for 45 years. His children also know watch repair, and are carrying forward the dying art form. He had second hand vintage automatics from Rs 800, and even showed me a sold tourbillion in perfect working condition !!

CIMG2336Mr G. Sathyanarayana, the ever helpful proprietor.

280920131835 Automatics Galore !

There were rows and rows of HMT watches on display; now this not something you get to see daily. Click on the pictures for full sizes.



I finally decided on an HMT Sourab Premium, which I found beautiful (looks like a Rolex Datejust)  and not too heavy to carry around. I am going to gift this to my dad on his birthday coming up soon. Smile


I also noticed a very beautiful pre-owned Seiko 5 automatic for sale, and quickly picked it up. It has a glass back to show off the automatic movement !


Real mechanical watches are on a spiritual level. Some people will never get that. The micro-engineering behind an automatic can only be truly understood by an engineer. That’s why my dad loved them. That’s why I love them.